How a non-profit organization in Ecuador protects 10% of the world’s bird species

Jan 2, 2024 | 0 comments

By Rhett Butler

In 1997, ornithologist Robert S. Ridgely discovered a previously undocumented bird species, the Jocotoco Antpitta (Grallaria ridgelyi), in the tropical montane forests on the Amazonian slope of the Andes in southeastern Ecuador. This ground-dwelling bird was immediately recognized as critically endangered due to its very small range and the threats to its habitat, which led to the establishment of the Jocotoco Foundation in 1998 and the subsequent purchase of land for the creation of the Tapichalaca Reserve.

Jocotoco volunteers stand under a sign supporting the mission of promoting freedom for Ecuador’s birds.

Since then, Jocotoco has established a network of 15 reserves across Ecuador. Each reserve has been selected to protect areas that are globally significant for bird conservation, ranging from the lowlands of the Amazon rainforest to the Galapagos Islands. These reserves safeguard a vast number of regionally endemic and globally threatened plants and animals, including 10% of the world’s bird species.

Beyond preserving habitats critical for endangered bird species and other wildlife, Jocotoco has integrated ecotourism, community engagement and education, and scientific research and monitoring into its conservation strategy. The organization works closely with local communities to promote conservation awareness and sustainable practices. Additionally, its ecotourism programs generate employment opportunities and revenue for people living around their reserves.

Martin Schaefer, Jocotoco’s head, discussed the group’s adaptive approach with Mongabay: “For each species, we analyze its threats, assessing whether Jocotoco can make a difference and to what extent. Then, we determine the best approach. Sometimes, working with communities or local authorities to save threatened forests is most effective. In other cases, acquiring land to block logging roads of industrial timber companies is the better strategy. The approach depends on the specific threats to biodiversity.”

Jocotoco director Martin Schaefer

“In continental South America, habitat loss is the most significant threat, and we counter it by collaborating with communities or protecting land, whether it is ours or that of third parties,” he explained. “On the Galapagos, invasive species pose the greatest threat to native biodiversity. Here, we work with the authorities to control or eradicate invasive species such as rats or mice, which also damage crops.”

Schaefer, who joined Jocotoco in 2010 and has over 20 years of experience in the Neotropics, says Ecuadorians tend to be very supportive of conservation efforts. This support is evident in the collective decision in a referendum in August to phase out oil drilling in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park and ban mining in the upper Chocó, as well as an increasing willingness to listen to the country’s Indigenous peoples.

Schaefer recently spoke with Mongabay about Jocotoco’s work, the global challenges facing wildlife, and the shifting tides of public perception towards the environment.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Mongabay: What led you to this work?

Martin Schaefer: I had always wanted to contribute to a greater cause. Choosing to protect nature was an easy decision, as I have been inspired by nature since early childhood. Observing wild animals navigate their lives — sometimes quite literally, as in the case of the large migrations of birds or wildebeest — is a constant source of joy and wonder. The privilege of seeing many wonderful and sometimes grandiose places has fueled my desire to help future generations witness as much of nature as I have been able to.

The Great Sapphirewing hummingbird is one of many species protected by Jocotoco

Mongabay: You’ve overseen tremendous growth since you joined Jocotoco. What have been drivers of this expansion?

Martin Schaefer: As in each success, there are several drivers. First comes a wonderful team of dedicated people, from park guards to office workers. Without such a team, we would not have been able to protect nature, let alone expand our model. Given the rapid declines in wildlife and the health of ecosystems, the desire and vision to achieve more protection of nature was natural.

Second, we improved our model of conservation to become more quantitative. This allowed us to communicate better what we would be able to achieve.

Lastly, there was an opportunity. Two decades ago, people and civil society at large were less engaged in protecting nature. They simply did not see the need for it. The fires in Australia, the Amazon, and California changed that dramatically. Now, everybody understands our need to protect nature, even if it’s just out of self-interest to ensure our own survival. Thus, by having an excellent model of conservation, Jocotoco was able to expand its funding over recent years.

Mongabay: What is Jocotoco’s conservation model?

Martin Schaefer: We focus on highly threatened species and ecosystems. For each species, we analyze its threats, assessing whether Jocotoco can make a difference and to what extent. Then, we determine the best approach.

Jocotoco offers visitors a bird’s-eye view of conservation program.

Sometimes, working with communities or local authorities to save threatened forests is most effective. In other cases, acquiring land to block logging roads of industrial timber companies is the better strategy. The approach depends on the specific threats to biodiversity.

In continental South America, habitat loss is the most significant threat, and we counter it by collaborating with communities or protecting land, whether it is ours or that of third parties.

On the Galapagos, invasive species pose the greatest threat to native biodiversity. Here, we work with the authorities to control or eradicate invasive species such as rats or mice, which also damage crops.

Mongabay: What is the role of ecotourism in Jocotoco’s model? And what about conservation in Ecuador generally?

Martin Schaefer: Ecotourism is and has always been one important part of our operations. For two reasons: it brings in income, even though this is often modest. More importantly, it allows us to showcase how effective we, Jocotoco, can be in protecting nature. Nature heals on its own. All we need to do it is to give it a chance to do so. By having lodges in our reserves, Jocotoco enables visitors to witness the wonderful habitats and species they otherwise rarely encounter. For many Ecuadorians, it is a rare chance to see the beauty and diversity of their surroundings. Thus, our model has always been to welcome the public, as you can only love what you know.

I would always encourage others to set up ecotourism operations but would caution them against seeing such operations as a panacea. For too long, conservationists believed the ecotourism can guarantee the long-term financial sustainability of nature reserves. This is true in some spectacular sites, but not true for the many important locations that do not sport gorilla or tigers.

Mongabay: More broadly, you’ve been working on wildlife conservation issues for a number of years. In that time, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the sector?

Martin Schaefer: One particularly big change is the attitude and perception of civil society towards nature. Nowadays, most people in Ecuador are acutely aware of climate change, or reductions in water availability, and of pollution. None of these were important topics 20 years ago. It is very encouraging to see how we respond to these challenges as civil society. Today, people are willing to take actions.

At the same time, I have seen a great reduction in wildlife. Take insects for example. I have worked in sites, where insects declined by 57% in just nine years. Their numbers were not impressive nine years ago, but nowadays you need to search for them. While we cannot stem the tide, we can establish refuges that allow populations to build up again.

I have also seen the globalization of wildlife trade, take shark fins or body parts of tigers, bears, and jaguars. By now, that trade has reached the most remote sites in the world. This was not the case 20 years ago. At the same time, we have also seen many success stories, such as the return of wolves and eagles in Europe after a hunting ban. Thus, all the changes testify to our ability to influence the state of our world, for the better or worse.
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More about Mongabay
Mongabay is a nonprofit environmental science and conservation news platform that produces original reporting in English, Indonesian, Spanish, French, Hindi, and Brazilian Portuguese by leveraging over 800 correspondents in some 70 countries. We are dedicated to evidence-driven objective journalism. Our main beats are forests, wildlife, oceans, and the conservation sector. Mongabay’s readership includes officials in development agencies, natural resources management ministries, scientists, business leaders, and civil society, among others.

Credit: Mongabay

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